Getting Raw in Tokyo

by | Feb 17, 2024

sushi and sashimi in a tokyo restaurant

We’re in Tokyo. It’s 4:30 on a weekday afternoon. Welcome to ‘tourist limbo’, a period where exhaustion from the days sightseeing mixes with being too far from your hotel to return and being too early for dinner.

Japanese business folk glide elegantly by. Suited and skirted. Stoic. Most heading for home no doubt. Offering mild annoyance as they pass two foreigners hiding from the downpour and blocking the train station entrance. We’re killing time. Impatiently waiting for our Google mapped restaurant to actually open. An under the radar sushi place whose concealed doorway hides on the ground floor of a small apartment block.

We break the unwritten Japanese rule of never breaking unwritten Japanese rules, and attempt to arrive before opening time. Skipping out into the rain. Running awkwardly. Eyes half shut. Giggling. Because that’s how you are supposed to leave shelter when it’s raining. Another unwritten rule.

The restaurant looks closed. Eschewing the usual Tokyo neon, their tiny homemade sign implies the potential availability of food served by owners not overly concerned about anyone actually attending. It also implies that we are 10 minutes early. I try the door, still locked; the fleeting disappointment evaporating as a gap opens and a small Japanese lady wedges her head between the door and its frame. “Are you open?” I ask. Clearly she does not speak English, but several nods and bows indicate we are free to enter the tiny establishment, a single room where an elderly sushi chef is busy donning his white uniform and muttering under his breath.

We sit at the counter where there are stools for around 6 diners. There are no other tables or chairs. No room for any either. Small refrigerated glass cabinets line the counter showing seafood in various forms. Ugly things from the sea that always, occasionally or never taste wonderful depending on your predilection for all things fish. Shelves of Saki with names tags hanging from the bottle necks parade on the wall behind me. Partly consumed by regulars and then left for a later date. Yet another cool idea from the land of cool ideas.

The chef is ready. He pats his stomach. Licks his lips. After a deep breath he welcomes us to sit, slides two ‘set menu’ options towards us and the show begins.

I am not sure we are ready for a schooling on Japanese fish based dining. I had planned to order some sushi rolls, a little sashimi, maybe a miso soup and have a chat with Claire about the days events. The chef has other ideas.

The chef decides which of the set menus we will have and cajoles us through a simply incredible array of seafood. Each small dish is prepared in turn. Each handed to us with instructions about what to add and how to eat it. Claire looks like she’s died and gone to heaven. My timeline for each and every dish starts with skepticism and ends with a ‘sold’ sign hanging out the corner of my spoiled lips. It’s good. Really good. The chef knows this already. Warming to us, and Claire in particular, who by this point has almost melted in her chair.

Still the dishes arrive. I vowed never to eat eel but at this stage I’m all in. Washing it back with Saki whilst desperately trying ignore what the live version looked like. I wonder if this is the difference between people that like seafood and those that don’t; the ability to stay in the moment with their prettily presented dish rather than summon the ghoulish reality of it’s origin. Raising my saki I toast the bravery of those sashimi pioneers.

The chef smiles and leans back against the wall. His work here is done. He knows full well this is one of those ‘traveller’ moments. A cultural jackpot. A one-on-two ultra legit ‘sushi’ experience in Tokyo. A box well and truly ticked.

Share This